SAFe 101: A Beginner’s Guide to the Scaled Agile Framework | by Tom Boswell | Lean-Agile Mindset | Jan, 2023
What is SAFe? How to learn about SAFe? (SAFe resources) How to start doing SAFe at your organization?
SAFe® (Scaled Agile Framework) is becoming increasingly ubiquitous at enterprises engaged in large-scale software delivery and Agile transformations (53% of respondees to Digital Ai’s 2022 16th State of Agile Report say their enterprise uses SAFe). However, despite its popularity, it can be difficult to know exactly how to start learning about SAFe. I am a SAFe Program Consultant (SPC) and SAFe trainer and have written this article to help you take those first steps. In this blog post, I discuss:
- The basics of SAFe / SAFe FAQs — What is SAFe? Where is SAFe used and why? and other frequently asked questions about SAFe
- How to learn about SAFe — What are the best online resources, books, and training
- How to implement SAFe in your organization — What is the SAFe Implementation Roadmap? What is the role of SPCs? Should you use an external consultant?
What is SAFe?
SAFe is a framework or knowledgebase that contains principles, practices, and competencies from Lean, Agile and DevOps, to help organizations achieve business agility. It is typically used in enterprises which are developing solutions (products, services, systems — often software) at a scale which requires multiple Agile teams to collaborate to deliver.
SAFe is often visualized as the SAFe Big Picture (see diagram below). This diagram shows all of the roles, artefacts, events, and elements of the framework.
What is the goal or purpose of SAFe?
SAFe is a framework that helps your organization build competencies to enable Business Agility.
“Business Agility is the ability to compete and thrive in the digital age by quickly responding to market changes and emerging opportunities with innovative, digitally-enabled business solutions.”
© Scaled Agile, Inc.
These competencies include everything from technical practices to organizational design, Lean-Agile leadership, and Lean portfolio governance and funding. The purpose of SAFe is broader and more holistic than optimizing and scaling delivery team practices.
What are the key concepts of SAFe? (SAFe in 30 seconds)
SAFe has ARTs (Agile Release Trains), which are “teams of teams”, consisting of 50–125 people, which deliver shared objectives. They deliver these objectives in recurring 8–12 week timeboxes, which are called PIs (Program Increments). They collaboratively plan their work for the PI in a 2-day event called PI Planning, which the entire ART attends and participates in.
Of course, there is much more than that! In fact, the above is really only covering a small part of the development value stream (the steps from ideation to release).
What are the four SAFe configurations?
One of the key things to understand about SAFe is that you don’t have to use the entire knowledgebase and the goal is not to do “full SAFe”. In fact, you should aim to use the minimum set of competencies and practices to meet your organization’s goals and context.
SAFe has four configurations which help you do this:
- Essential SAFe is the basic building block and the simplest starting point for implementing SAFe. It contains the minimum recommended roles, events, and artefacts. These elements are common to all SAFe configurations, no matter how large or small.
- Large Solution SAFe is used by enterprises building large-scale solutions (typically cyber-physical systems). Think SAFe implementations that involve thousands rather than hundreds of people! This configuration does not include portfolio-level considerations.
- Portfolio SAFe adds competencies and practices to apply Lean principles to portfolio management, foster continuous learning, and enable organizational agility, at small to mid-sized enterprises.
- Full SAFe is the entire SAFe configuration. It is used to maintain portfolios of large and complex solutions at large enterprises.
What are the Seven Core Competencies of the Lean Enterprise?
An alternative way of viewing SAFe is through The Seven Core Competencies of the Lean Agile Enterprise. In fact Scaled Agile refers to the competencies as “the primary lens for understanding and implementing SAFe”.
The competencies are represented by the circular icons on the SAFe Big Picture and are also visualized on this Overview diagram (see below).
The competencies on the left of the Overview diagram are broadly around execution, the ones on the right are about strategy, and Lean-Agile Leadership is the foundation.
Scaled Agile has a great 5-minute overview video (see below) which outlines SAFe from this perspective. Warning — it goes pretty fast!
It’s worth noting that only the full SAFe configuration has all seven competencies, but all of the SAFe configurations require (1) Agile Product Delivery, (2) Team and Technical Agility, and (3) Lean-Agile Leadership competencies.
What are the twenty-one dimensions of SAFe?
You might have noticed on the overview diagram or from the video that each of the competencies has three dimensions, which makes twenty-one dimensions in total. As part of the competencies, the dimensions are also enablers of business agility. You can read about the dimensions in the competency articles.
- Enterprise Solution Delivery (1)Lean System and Solution Engineering, (2) Coordinating Trains and Suppliers, and (3) Continually Evolve Live Systems.
- Agile Product Delivery (1) Customer Centricity and Design Thinking, (2) Develop on Cadence; Release on Demand, and (3) Devops and the Continuous Delivery Pipeline.
- Team and Technical Agility (1) Agile Teams, (2) Built-In Quality, and (3) Teams of Agile Teams.
- Lean Portfolio Management (1) Strategy and Investment Funding, (2) Agile Portfolio Operations, and (3) Lean Governance.
- Organizational Agility (1) Lean Thinking People and Agile Teams, (2) Lean Business Operations, and (3) Strategy Agility.
- Continuous Learning Culture (1) Learning Organization, (2) Relentless Improvement, and (3) Innovation Culture.
- Lean-Agile Leadership (1) Mindset and Principles, (2) Leading by Example, and (3) Leading Change.
History and origins of SAFe
SAFe was created by Dean Leffingwell and released in 2011. It is currently on version 5.1. If you are interested in the history and evolution of SAFe you can read the article I wrote below, which highlights the major changes in each version.
Where is SAFe used?
SAFe is typically used in organizations that require multiple delivery teams to collaborate to deliver large-scale business solutions (usually software but not always).
Scaled Agile has reported that SAFe has been adopted at 20,000 enterprises across the globe and that more than 1,000,000 people have completed SAFe training.
There are many ways you can learn about SAFe including attending Certified SAFe training, participating in meetups, reading books or blogs, joining online communities etc. Below I have listed my favourite resources for learning about SAFe.
The SAFe knowledgebase is available in its entirety at https://www.scaledagileframework.com/. The default view on the homepage and primary way of navigating SAFe is called the SAFe Big Picture. Each icon on this diagram links to a corresponding article.
The main challenge for those new to SAFe is knowing where to start with the articles. I personally recommend reading SAFe Distilled and/or attending the Leading SAFe course (continue reading for further information on both).
It is also worth periodically checking the blog section of the website, https://www.scaledagileframework.com/blog/, as it highlights updates and changes to the articles and framework.
Scaled Agile Inc has its own website https://scaledagile.com/ which is hosted separately from the SAFe knowledgebase. The main areas of the website are:
- SAFe Community Platform is where you can access learning resources, toolkits, and community forums. This is also where you take the exam if you do a certified SAFe course. Membership is granted and renewed as part of the SAFe certification process or can be purchased separately.
- Resource Centre is where Scaled Agile publishes blogs, videos and podcasts.
- Customer Stories is where you can read case studies from organizations that are using SAFe.
- Train & Certify allows you to browse SAFe courses and find a public training provider.
SAFe communities and events
Books on SAFe
There are two books about SAFe that I recommend to beginners:
- SAFe Distilled is a three-part book that (1) introduces SAFe and its principles and mindset, (2) describes the framework in terms of the seven core competencies, and (3) discusses implementing SAFe. Most of the material is publically available on the SAFe website but the book provides a more structured approach to reading the articles.
- The Art of Avoiding a Train Wreck by SAFe fellows Em Campbell Pretty and Adrienne Wilson is essential reading for anyone implementing SAFe. It is full of practical advice and anecdotes based on the authors’ experience launching dozens of ARTs.
Additionally, Scaled Agile publish two reading lists which you might want to check out:
SAFe courses/SAFe Training
Scaled Agile offer thirteen different SAFe courses designed for a range of roles, contexts, and experience levels. You can explore the courses here and find training providers here. There are two courses which are most relevant to this article:
- Leading SAFe — is the closest thing Scaled Agile has to an introductory course. It is 2 days long and covers the foundations of SAFe and its principles. It even includes a simulation activity of PI Planning!
- Implementing SAFe — is the most advanced SAFe course. It is designed for people leading the SAFe implementation (see the section below for more). Attendees who pass the exam become Certified SAFe Program Consultants (SPCs).
Tip: Implementing SAFe is quite a challenging course and is classified as advanced/expert level. Although there are no mandatory prerequisites I would not recommend it to those who are new to Agile or enterprise software delivery.
The approach required to implement SAFe will largely be influenced by your organization’s culture, practices, and worldview. For example, if your organization works from a traditional project mindset, then SAFe may be a considerable change. Teams will require coaching in Lean-Agile and Scrum fundamentals, and leaders may need help transitioning from a project to product (or value stream-aligned) mindset. However, if the organization and teams are already working in a more iterative, Agile (or Lean) way, then the implementation plan and approach will look very different!
Implementing SAFe is a very broad topic, but there are three things I’d like to touch on:
- The Implementation Roadmap
- The role of SAFe Program Consultants (SPCs)
- Should you hire an external consultant?
The SAFe Implementation Roadmap
If you decide that SAFe is the right approach for your organization then you should look at the SAFe Implementation Roadmap. The Roadmap has 12 steps which are suggested as a common adoption pattern.
Each step has an article which lists activities, workshops and training that you will want to consider. I strongly advise that you carefully consider the early steps and that you do not launch your ARTs without completing the necessary preparation. You are not likely to be successful if your ARTs are not designed around value streams, if backlogs are not prioritised and refined, or if people do not fully understand their roles.
The role of SAFe Program Consultants
SAFe Program Consultants (SPCs) are change agents who guide SAFe implementations. Usually, your SPCs will consist of (1) internal or external consultants, Enterprise Agile Coaches, or transformation specialists, and (2) internal leaders (usually from Technology and Product) who have completed SPC training to support the transformation, but hold other roles in the business.
Collectively, SPCs facilitate the activities described in the SAFe Implementation Roadmap including:
- Providing Certified SAFe training
- Creating a LACE (Lean Agile Centre of Excellence) and building the transformation backlog
- Running workshops to identify value streams and design ARTs
- Ensuring readiness for ART launch (team formation, backlog readiness, etc)
- Launching the ART
- Coaching ART execution
Should you hire an external SAFe consultant?
You do not have to hire an external consultant or partner to implement SAFe and launch ARTs. However, I would recommend that whoever is leading your SAFe implementation (1) has firsthand experience of SAFe, and (2) has experience leading transformations.
An experienced SPC can:
- Guide you through the SAFe Implementation Roadmap
- Provide transformation expertise
- Help you to avoid common pitfalls and anti-patterns
- Show you what good looks like
- Provide internal Certified SAFe training and workshops
You can find SAFe partners using this link.
I hope you found this article useful. Below I have summarised the ways in which you might like to continue learning about SAFe, depending on your personal context.
- If you wish to explore SAFe at your leisure
- Explore the articles on the SAFe website
- Read SAFe Distilled and/or The Art of Avoiding a Train Wreck
- Attend meetups and community events
- Join forums and groups
- Read blogs and listen to podcasts
2. If you wish to attend basic SAFe training
- Find a public Leading SAFe course
3. If you want to Implement SAFe in your organization
- Look at the SAFe Implementation Roadmap and read the associated articles
- Attend Leading SAFe and/or Implementing SAFe
- Find a partner or consultant to advise
- Read The Art of Avoiding a Train Wreck